SAN LUIS OBISPO — It was the Anteaters and not the Mustangs who reached a sustained full gallop Saturday night at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
UC Irvine, led by junior guard Michael Hunter’s career-high 20 points, as well as eight assists, one shy of matching his career high, used an 18-3 run midway through the second half to run away with an 80-63 Big West Conference victory.
It was execution on the offensive end and consistent effort on the defensive end that helped UCI (4-11, 2-1 in conference) break open a game that was tied with 1:04 left in the first half.
Sophomore guard Patrick Rembert made a 10-foot runner to beat the second-half buzzer and give the visitors a 36-32 advantage.
Cal Poly (3-11, 0-4) tried to interrupt the ’Eaters’ offensive flow by going to a zone early in the second half. But UCI’s zone offense produced as efficiently as its man-to-man scheme.
“We’ve really been working on our half-court offense in practice,” said Hunter, who made five of seven second-half field-goal tries, including both of his three-point attempts. Hunter’s penetration and free-flowing ease with the pass or the shot, helped UCI look as fluid as it has all season.
“It was a real fun game,” said Hunter, who finished eight of 15 from the field, four of eight from threedom, while adding three rebounds and one steal. He had just two turnovers in 35 minutes.
“We knew we had to get this one, after not playing as well as we would have liked in the last five minutes at UC Santa Barbara [a loss Thursday]. I really wanted to come out here and get this one.”
Hunter was the most brilliant star for the visitors, who have won three of their last five following a 1-9 start. But there were plenty of heroes for the winners.
“I thought we got strong contributions from a lot of guys,” said UCI Coach Pat Douglass, whose satisfaction showed with a beaming grin that began in the waning moments, as he applauded the UCI debuts of walk-ons Jonas Lalehzadeh and Rashaad Ubah.
Freshman Eric Wise had 16 points and seven rebounds and senior Kevin Bland added 11 points, a career-high seven assists, and five boards.
Rembert had nine points, four rebounds and two assists in 26 reserve minutes, while junior Zak Atkinson chipped in nine points, three rebounds and two blocked shots to help UCI post a 40-26 rebounding advantage.
The Anteaters shot 60% after halftime to finish 32 of 64 from the field and they committed just three of their eight turnovers after the break. It was the first time in eight games that UCI had fewer than 10 turnovers.
The aforementioned 18-3 run included three straight three-pointers (by Derrick Strings, Rembert and Hunter, respectively) within a 71-second span. UCI was five of six from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes, often finding open looks after defenders had helped to thwart consistent penetration.
“I think they’re starting to see how they can get open,” Douglass said.
Hunter said painstaking practice detail in recent days has helped solidify the Anteaters’ offense.
“We know where guys are going to be at certain times and that’s why the offense looks more fluid,” Hunter said.
UCI seized leads of 6-2 and 9-4, but the Mustangs, who have now lost six straight, used some outside shooting by junior Lorenzo Keeler and senior Chaz Thomas to make it a seesaw first half.
Keeler finished four of six from three-point range to lead the hosts with 20 points, while Thomas added 14 points.
But with Hunter and, at times, Rembert, slashing though the Mustangs’ perimeter defense, and Bland spearheading an inside-out passing game, UCI proved to be unstoppable.
The Anteaters hope the same can be said for their final 13 conference games.
“We feel like the league is wide open, and we can go out there and take it,” Hunter said.
Douglass was more cautious.
“It’s great to split on the road [for the Central Coast swing], but every game is going to be tough,” Douglass said.
After being outrebounded in each of their first seven games, by an average margin of 11, the Anteaters have now topped their opponents in the last eight, by an average advantage of 6.5.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 80, Cal Poly SLO 63
UCI – Bland 11, Folker 6, Wise 16, Hunter 20, Lauer 3, Rembert 9, Atkinson 9, Strings 6.
3-pt. goals – Hunter 4, Strings 2, Lauer 1, Bland 1, Rembert 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
CPSLO – Dipprey 2, Shelton 9, Keeler 20, Thomas 14, Lewis 10, Hanson 4, Henning 2, Anderson 2.
3-pt. goals – Keeler 4, Thomas 1, Lewis 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCI, 36-32.
BARRY FAULKNER may be reached at (714) 966-4615 or at email@example.com.